For more than 40 years, Seattle has been home to two of the largest, best-known music festivals on the West Coast: Bumbershoot and Folklife. Both happen to fall during the time of the year when our city receives a short respite from the rainy months, ushering in a time for thousands to gather in the Seattle Center for sun and song.
While Bumbershoot is a collection of some of the greatest and up-and-coming bands in many genres, Folklife is a free, weekend-long celebration of the folk music genre from all ends of the spectrum. Of course, for folk music steeped in Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, this means klezmer.
Folklife is one of the only festivals in the U.S. that brings together such an enormous collection of Jewish music based both on historical tradition and modern influences. In years past, Folklife has featured a Jewish show — a block of Jewish folk bands that performed on one date during the festival together. As Harvey Niebulski, a Folklife program committee member and curator for its Jewish music, points out, with the changing landscape and volume of programming available for Folklife, it became apparent this year that a Jewish show was unnecessary. Though the Jewish community in Seattle is still strong and growing, the presence of other new communities in the great Seattle area need space in the festival as well, he said.
“Now we work with a lot of other communities to bring them out and celebrate their own world and own culture,” says Niebulski. “We’ve dispersed more of the Jewish acts out, not all at one time.”
This year, you’ll find Jewish music sprinkled throughout the long weekend.
“There’s a lot of bands that aren’t going to be there that are often there — Klez Kids, Kosher Redhots, and others,” says Nielbulski. “They will probably be back next year to rotate out bands.”
In its second year at Folklife, Nu Klezmer Army will appear on Friday evening on the Fisher Green Stage. A punk-klezmer band “playing traditional klezmer music untraditionally,” Nu Klezmer Army is based here in Seattle. A few of its members are Seattle natives.
“We come to Folklife because ultimately it’s a celebration of the music we play and love. The festival brings together different styles of folk music from all over the world and it’s an honor to be selected to share ours,” says Dan, the band’s clarinet player. “It is also great opportunity to play for an informed and receptive audience.”
As a board member for nearly 17 years, Niebulski has seen the landscape of both the Jewish community and the Pacific Northwest change dramatically. When Folklife started 42 years ago, Jewish culture was not celebrated as openly as it is today. With a space for Jewish music has also come a space for Jewish learning and understanding for where the klezmer style comes from and how it has influenced other genres around the world. On Sunday afternoon at the EMP Learning Labs, attendees can join Niebulski for his Klezmer 101 and Jewish Music workshop to learn the history, understand the melodies, and practice the sights and sounds of klezmer.
“The Klezmer 101 Jewish Music workshop helps people to understand what is and isn’t klezmer, where some of the recognizable songs in Jewish culture come from, and how to pronounce some things,” says Niebulski. “People get to ask a lot of questions and better understand the genre.”
Nu Klezmer Army finds they have no problem appealing to the eclectic musical taste of Northwesterners. “Klezmer (and Balkan music in general) has its own niche in the Pacific Northwest and it does have a pretty strong following, but what we really enjoy is taking this music to anywhere that will have us,” Dan says. “We take this music out of its typical environment and expose it to people who have never heard it before — we bring it to all sorts of venues like the Russian Cultural Center (exactly what it sounds like) and the 2 Bit (a punk bar in Ballard) — and people are generally very open to it. This music seems to speak to a pretty diverse audience.”
So, as klezmer revives and thrives here in Seattle, be sure to catch as many new and returning acts at this weekend’s Folklife Festival, beginning Friday, May 24 through Monday, May 27 at the Seattle Center.
Schedule (for more details, see http://2013northwestfolklifefestival.sched.org)
• Nu Klezmer Army, Friday, May 24 at 8:30 p.m., Fisher Green Stage
• Erev Rav, part of the Balkan Misfits Party, Saturday, May 25 at 6 p.m., Fountain Lawn Stage
• Street Fleet Klezmer Band, Saturday, May 25 at 4:20 p.m., Fisher Green Stage
• Chervona, part of the Balkan Misfits Party, Saturday, May 25 at 6 p.m., Fountain Lawn Stage
• Klez Chaos, Friday, May 24 at 2:45 p.m., Mural Amphitheatre
• Rattletrap Ruckus, Saturday, May 25 at 7 p.m., part of the Subdued Stringband Jamboree, at the Northwest Court Stage
• Klez Katz, Monday, May 27 at 1 p.m., Alki Court Stage
• Klez Jam with Harvey Niebulski, Sunday, May 26 at 1 p.m., Boeing Green
• Klezmer 101 and Jewish Music taught by Harvey Niebulski, Sunday, May 26 at 3 p.m., EMP Learning Labs